Hosea’s Abusive Marital Metaphor Ends with Courtship, Not Violence
One of the most confounding biblical depictions of marriage appears in Hosea 2:1–22, read as the Haftarah to the Torah portion of Bemidbar. On one hand it contains beautiful lines of YHWH, as Israel’s metaphorical husband, speaking tenderly to his wife:
הושׁע ב:כא וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים.
Hos 2:21 And I will betroth you to me forever; and I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, hesed and compassion.
On the other hand, Hosea depicts potential violence in graphic detail, inflicted by a jilted, jealous husband upon a wife. For example, YHWH threatens his wife with public humiliation. After declaring אַפְשִׁיטֶנָּה עֲרֻמָּה, “I will strip her naked” (v. 5), Hosea, in YHWH’s name, announces:
הושׁע ב:יב וְעַתָּה אֲגַלֶּה אֶת נַבְלֻתָהּ לְעֵינֵי מְאַהֲבֶיהָ וְאִישׁ לֹא יַצִּילֶנָּה מִיָּדִי.
Hos 2:12 Now will I uncover her shame in the very sight of her lovers, and none shall save her from Me.
This imagery is disturbing, even when recognized as largely metaphorical. Concerns that it depicts and perpetuates violence against women demand attention. That YHWH is cast as that jilted lover appears to many to legitimate such violence. But Hosea actually does something quite different.
Backgound to Hosea 2
The book of Hosea begins with YHWH commanding the prophet to marry a sexually unfaithful woman and have children with her:
הושע א:ב …וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל הוֹשֵׁעַ לֵךְ קַח לְךָ אֵשֶׁת זְנוּנִים וְיַלְדֵי זְנוּנִים כִּי זָנֹה תִזְנֶה הָאָרֶץ מֵאַחֲרֵי יְ־הוָה.
Hos 1:2 …YHWH said to Hosea, “Go, get yourself a wife of whoredom and children of whoredom; for the land will stray from following YHWH.”
For centuries, interpreters who were troubled by YHWH’s instructions here have sought ways to ameliorate the message by arguing that YHWH never did make such outrageous demands.
Hosea reports that his wife gave birth to three children, all of whom receive names, at YHWH’s instruction, that symbolize His broken relationship with Israel (1:4–9).
- A son, Jezreel (יִזְרְעֶאל), meaning “God will sow” or “seed,” in memory of bloodshed;
- A daughter, Lo Ruchama (לֹא רֻחָמָה), “Not Pitied”;
- A son Lo Ami, (לֹא עַמִּי), “Not my People.”
What follows is an extended metaphor in which Hosea’s relationship with his wife also represents YHWH’s relationship with Israel.
Hosea 2: A Series of Responses to Marital Infidelity
In Hosea 2, the wife, and by extension Israel, is put on trial, and her children are called to confront their mother’s infidelity:
הושׁע ב:ד רִיבוּ בְאִמְּכֶם רִיבוּ כִּי הִיא לֹא אִשְׁתִּי וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אִישָׁהּ....
Hos 2:4a [*2:2a] Rebuke your mother, rebuke her—For she is not My wife [ʾishti, “my woman”] and I am not her husband [ʾishah, “her man”].
Having charged “the children” to confront their mother, the prophet begins with threats of punishment and retaliation:
הושׁע ב:ד ...וְתָסֵר זְנוּנֶיהָ מִפָּנֶיה וְנַאֲפוּפֶיהָ מִבֵּין שָׁדֶיהָ. ב:ה פֶּן אַפְשִׁיטֶנָּה עֲרֻמָּה וְהִצַּגְתִּיהָ כְּיוֹם הִוָּלְדָהּ וְשַׂמְתִּיהָ כַמִּדְבָּר וְשַׁתִּהָ כְּאֶרֶץ צִיָּה וַהֲמִתִּיהָ בַּצָּמָא.
Hos 2:4b And let her put away her harlotry from her face and her adultery from between her breasts. 2:5 Else will I strip her naked and leave her as on the day she was born: and I will make her like a wilderness, render her like desert land, and let her die of thirst.
The threats are preceded by the word פֶּן (pen), meaning “else” (or in Bible English, “lest”), indicating that violent retaliation will occur if the woman does not mend her ways. The outpouring of rage and envisioned retribution continues in the following verses:
הושׁע ב:ו וְאֶת בָּנֶיהָ לֹא אֲרַחֵם כִּי בְנֵי זְנוּנִים הֵמָּה. ב:ז כִּי זָנְתָה אִמָּם הֹבִישָׁה הוֹרָתָם כִּי אָמְרָה אֵלְכָה אַחֲרֵי מְאַהֲבַי נֹתְנֵי לַחְמִי וּמֵימַי צַמְרִי וּפִשְׁתִּי שַׁמְנִי וְשִׁקּוּיָי.
Hos 2:6 I will also disown her children; for they are now a harlot’s brood, 2:7 in that their mother has played the harlot. She that conceived them has acted shamelessly—because she thought, “I will go after my lovers, who supply my bread and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.”
The depiction here of the woman or Israel is indeed degrading. It joins other biblical passages that accuse Israel of betraying YHWH, but the manner in which Hosea 2 ultimately chooses to remedy the situation is unique.
Three Strategies for Restoring the Marriage
Hosea contemplates three possible responses to the betrayal, presenting them as strategies that will turn the wayward wife back to her husband. Each of these actions is preceded by the crucial word לָכֵן (lachen), “therefore.” The first two potential plans propose punishment, humiliation and abuse.
Plan A: Set Barriers (2:8–10)
First, the prophet envisions physically blocking the wayward female’s way so that she cannot reach other lovers:
הושׁע ב:ח לָכֵן הִנְנִי שָׂךְ אֶת דַּרְכֵּךְ בַּסִּירִים וְגָדַרְתִּי אֶת גְּדֵרָהּ וּנְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ לֹא תִמְצָא.
Hos 2:8 Therefore, I will hedge up her roads with thorns and raise walls against her, and she shall not find her paths.
This solution is expected to bring the woman back, but without genuine commitment or understanding. She is likely to return but for purely pragmatic reasons—because she does not have a real choice:
הושׁע ב:ט וְרִדְּפָה אֶת מְאַהֲבֶיהָ וְלֹא תַשִּׂיג אֹתָם וּבִקְשָׁתַם וְלֹא תִמְצָא וְאָמְרָה אֵלְכָה וְאָשׁוּבָה אֶל אִישִׁי הָרִאשׁוֹן כִּי טוֹב לִי אָז מֵעָתָּה.
Hos 2:9 Pursue her lovers as she will, she shall not overtake them; and seek them as she may, she shall never find them. Then she will say, “I will go and return to my first husband, for then I fared better then than now.”
But achieving this result is not the goal, because the woman does not understand the situation, and does not really care about her husband, whom she has jilted:
הושׁע ב:י וְהִיא לֹא יָדְעָה כִּי אָנֹכִי נָתַתִּי לָהּ הַדָּגָן וְהַתִּירוֹשׁ וְהַיִּצְהָר וְכֶסֶף הִרְבֵּיתִי לָהּ וְזָהָב עָשׂוּ לַבָּעַל.
Hos 2:10 She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold that they used for Baal.
Since Plan A is bound to fail, the prophet or YHWH contemplates a second punitive response if, or when, she does not mend her ways.
Plan B: Punishment (2:11–15)
The new plan begins with a decision to deprive the woman of food and clothing:
הושׁע ב:יא לָכֵן אָשׁוּב וְלָקַחְתִּי דְגָנִי בְּעִתּוֹ וְתִירוֹשִׁי בְּמוֹעֲדוֹ וְהִצַּלְתִּי צַמְרִי וּפִשְׁתִּי לְכַסּוֹת אֶת עֶרְוָתָהּ.
Hos 2:11 Therefore I will take back my new grain in its time and my new wine in its season, and I will snatch away my wool and my linen, that serve to cover her nakedness.
As the chapter continues, the distinction between Hosea as the woman’s husband and YHWH as Israel’s husband blurs even more. Hosea’s charge of infidelity applies to both sets of relationships, but the human husband-wife relation is overshadowed and eventually replaced by the target of the metaphor—YHWH as the jilted husband and Israel as the unfaithful wife:
הושׁע ב:טו וּפָקַדְתִּי עָלֶיהָ אֶת יְמֵי הַבְּעָלִים אֲשֶׁר תַּקְטִיר לָהֶם וַתַּעַד נִזְמָהּ וְחֶלְיָתָהּ וַתֵּלֶךְ אַחֲרֵי מְאַהֲבֶיהָ וְאֹתִי שָׁכְחָה נְאֻם־יְ־הוָה.
Hos 2:15 Thus will I punish her for the days of the Baalim, on which she brought them offerings. But decked with earrings and jewels, she would go after her lovers, forgetting Me, declares YHWH.
The expected response by the wife, however, is once again not what YHWH desires in this relationship: the wife (or Israel) would dress herself up and simply leave the husband behind, forgetting him as she goes “after her lovers.” Anticipating the failure of Plans A and B, the prophet models a rejection of violence as the way forward.
Plan C: Courtship (2:18–25)
Coercion and retaliation will not achieve the kind of relationship that YHWH aspires to have with Israel—or a husband with a wife. For that reason, the prophet describes a changed strategy, one of persuasion and generosity:
הושׁע ב:טז לָכֵן הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מְפַתֶּיהָ וְהֹלַכְתִּיהָ הַמִּדְבָּר וְדִבַּרְתִּי עַל לִבָּהּ.
Hos 2:16 Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.
The phrase וְדִבַּרְתִּי עַל לִבָּהּ translates as “I will speak to her heart”—the language of courtship and romance. The prospect of taking her back to the wilderness conjures the honeymoon that Israel and YHWH had enjoyed earlier:
הושׁע ב:יז וְנָתַתִּי לָהּ אֶת כְּרָמֶיהָ מִשָּׁם וְאֶת עֵמֶק עָכוֹר לְפֶתַח תִּקְוָה וְעָנְתָה שָּׁמָּה כִּימֵי נְעוּרֶיהָ וִּכְיוֹם עֲלֹתָהּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Hos 2:17 From there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.
The prophet envisions that YHWH’s tender words and actions would prompt Israel—or the wife—to change her attitude dramatically:
הושׁע ב:יח וְהָיָה בַיּוֹם הַהוּא נְאֻם יְ־הוָה תִּקְרְאִי אִישִׁי וְלֹא תִקְרְאִי לִי עוֹד בַּעְלִי.
Hos 2:18 And in that day—declares YHWH—you will call [Me] Ishi, and no more will you call Me Baali.”
ʾIshi literally means “my man.” When used in relation to a woman, the noun ʾish usually refers to her husband (as is apparent when Hosea earlier uses this term in 2:4; see also Ruth 1:2–3). As a counterpart of ʾisha (woman), ʾish reflects parity between partners. Hereafter, the prophet envisions, Israel will address YHWH in personal terms, replacing the previous hierarchical relationship represented by rejection of the epithet Baali (from the word baʿal, which means “my lord” or “my master”).
In the Bible, baʿal is also used for “husband,” and as a verb for acting as a husband (see Isa 54:5). Importantly, however, Baal is also the title and name of the major Canaanite god worshipped by many (probably most) Israelites in Hosea’s time and beyond, much to the chagrin of the prophets, who repeatedly rail against such practice.
Thus, the verse describes a radically transformed relationship. It conveys mutuality and intimacy as the hoped-for model for the relationship between Israel and YHWH, and for a human couple. That is the key aspect of the chapter. The hoped for reconciliation is reached by abandoning fantasies or practice of abuse and coercion.
As Hosea presents it, turning to persuasion leads to the consummation of the relationship based on mutual commitment. It reaches its climax in the final verses of the chapter. First, Hosea envisions a transformation that affects all of humanity as well as nature, suggesting an Eden restored:
הושׁע ב:כ וְכָרַתִּי לָהֶם בְּרִית בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עִם חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה וְעִם עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וְרֶמֶשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וְקֶשֶׁת וְחֶרֶב וּמִלְחָמָה אֶשְׁבּוֹר מִן הָאָרֶץ וְהִשְׁכַּבְתִּים לָבֶטַח.
Hos 2:20 In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land. Thus I will let them lie down in safety.
This is followed by a renewed commitment to a marital relationship based on enduring foundations, verses which have been immortalized by their recitation when putting on tefillin (phylacteries) and by their inclusion in many marriage vows and modern ketubot:
הושׁע ב:כא וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. ב:כב וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת יְ־הוָה.
Hos 2:21 And I will betroth you to me forever. And I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, hesed and compassion. 2:22 And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness/trust. And you will know YHWH.
The phrase “you will know YHWH” conjures the consummation of the relationship, in both spiritual and physical terms. To know another in the Bible typically entails sexual intimacy (e.g., Gen 4:1). Hosea’s message here is so audacious that many translations shy away from it by placing a distance between the female Israel and YHWH. Thus NJPS has, “Then you shall be devoted to YHWH.”
But this chapter is laden with eroticism. The Bible does not shy away from depicting the relationship between Israel and YHWH in erotic terms, and the final verses confirm the sexual associations by richly envisioning the fertility that is engendered by this coupling.
הושׁע ב:כג וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא אֶעֱנֶה נְאֻם יְ־הוָה אֶעֱנֶה אֶת הַשָּׁמָיִם וְהֵם יַעֲנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ. ב:כד וְהָאָרֶץ תַּעֲנֶה אֶת הַדָּגָן וְאֶת הַתִּירוֹשׁ וְאֶת הַיִּצְהָר וְהֵם יַעֲנוּ אֶת יִזְרְעֶאל. ב:כה וּזְרַעְתִּיהָ לִּי בָּאָרֶץ וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת לֹא רֻחָמָה וְאָמַרְתִּי לְלֹא עַמִּי עַמִּי אַתָּה וְהוּא יֹאמַר אֱלֹהָי.
Hos 2:23 In that day, I will respond—declares YHWH—I will respond to the sky, and it shall respond to the earth; 2:24 And the earth shall respond with new grain and wine and oil, and they shall respond to Jezreel. 2:25 I will sow her in the land as My own; and take Lo-ruhamah back in favor; and I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are My people,” and he will respond, “[You are] my God.”
The unity between “her,” Israel, and YHWH now is expected to affect the agricultural cycle so as to produce abundantly the staples that sustained Israel’s life in the land (grain, oil and wine). This fertility of nature underscores the implicit generative force of the union between YHWH and Israel, as does the reversal of the relationship with the “children.”
Persuasion, not Coercion
Attention to the structure of this chapter (see appendix) shows that YHWH relinquishes possible violence in favor of something else: gentle coaxing and persuasion. The result is a new model of intimacy between YHWH an Israel, and by analogy, between human marriage partners, with patriarchal hierarchy replaced by mutuality and generosity. In this sense Hosea 2 anticipates the relationship modeled in the Song of Songs.
The Structure of Hosea 2:4–25
Hosea’s message is best apprehended by looking at the structure of the chapter:
- Indictment of mother/wife (2:4–7)
- Three potential strategies for remedying the situation (2:8–17)
Plan A. First (failed) tactic: לָכֵן, “Therefore…!” (vv. 8–10)
- The Tactics: I would set barriers, and she would likely return.
- Results: she would not know; i.e., it would not work.
Plan B. Second (failed) tactic: לָכֵן, “Therefore…!” (vv. 11–15)
- I would punish her.
- Results: it would not work because she would likely leave.
Plan C. Third (successful!) tactic: לָכֵן, “Therefore…!” (vv. 16–17)
- I would court her with tenderness and new honeymoon in the wilderness (as at the time of Exodus); “I would speak to her heart….”
- Results: Success! Restoration!
- Transformations envisioned resulting from “speaking to her heart” (2:18–25)
- Covenant and betrothal; וְהָיָה בַיּוֹם הַהוּא, “and it will be on that day” (vv. 18–22)
- End of Baal worship and a new model for marriage: “You will call, ‘My man!’ and you will no longer call me “Master/Baal” (v. 18).
- Covenant (v. 20).
- Betrothal (vv. 21–22).
- Consummation and climax: the great dialogue and reversal; וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, “and it will be on that day” (vv. 23–25)
- Responsiveness of YHWH and nature: nature’s fertility (vv. 23–24a).
- Responsiveness and reversal of relation to the children, i.e., people (Renewal of the covenant) and restoration of Jezre-el, Lo-Ruhama and Lo-Ami (vv. 24b–25).
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Prof. Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is The Effie Wise Ochs Professor Emerita of Biblical Literature and History at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, LA. She received her Ph.D. at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology and her ordination from HUC-JIR. Eskenazi is co-author of the award-winning JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth and co-editor of the award-winning The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.
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